Let The Angels Weep
Darren Aronofsky is no stranger to making films about broken people whose realities drive them to physically destroy their bodies. Ellen Burstyn and Jennifer Connelly’s failures lead them to lose themselves in heroin in Requiem For A Dream, Hugh Jackman’s grief for his dying wife in The Fountain is so severe that he cuts open his hand and injects black ink into it as he sobs hysterically, an aging Mickey Rourke’s unhealthy sense of self-worth drives him to return to professional wrestling despite his heart condition in The Wrestler, Natalie Portman’s quest to achieve perfection leaves her insane and bleeding out of her stomach in Black Swan and the slaughter of Jennifer Lawrence’s newborn son in Mother leads her to explode in heartbreaking rage and set herself on fire.
Needless to say, self-destruction is all too familiar territory for Aronofsky. His new film The Whale holds nothing back either. It plunges head-first into the icy waters of heartbreak and anchors down to the epicenter of internal suffering and the abyss of human connection. Brendan Fraser is an angel whose performance as an angel will leave you sobbing so hard out loud and not caring who hears you.
The angel (Whale) in question is Charlie, a gay writing professor dying from severe obesity. He teaches online and keeps his webcam shut off in shame of his appearance. Over five days, four people end up in his orbit: His estranged seventeen-year-old daughter Ellie, (Sadie Sink) his best friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau) his ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton), and runaway missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins). For The Whale, all five people will expose and be exposed to all sides of themselves: The loving, the kind, the broken, the enraged, the heart shattered, the selfish, the ignorant, the loyal, the complicit, and the beautiful - And be forever transformed in the process.
A closeted Charlie came out when he fell in love with Alan, one of his former students. Post their divorce, a heartbroken Mary denied Charlie access to Ellie who was eight at the time. Charlie didn’t fight back and has not seen Ellie since. Alan and Liz (Alan’s sister) grew up as adopted children of New Life Church’s head pastor who disowned Liz for her disbelief in the church and Alan for his homosexuality. Alan and Charlie had a beautiful years-long relationship and loved each other so deeply. The world never lets anything that beautiful last forever. Religious guilt and trauma were so ingrained in Alan, he starved himself and eventually ended his life by jumping off a bridge. Charlie binged ate out of shame and grief resulting in his current appearance.
The Whale takes place entirely inside Charlie’s apartment except for some outside shots of the apartment, a nearby highway, and a beach in Oregon where Charlie, Ellie, and Mary once vacationed. The Whale was adapted from a stage play and the film very much plays out like one. Not all dramas need that approach but it’s never a bad thing when it happens. By running like a play, audiences are made to make investments in all the characters, and the cinematography and technical aspects work in favor of the choice. The blackness between the images on film screens is usually up and down but The Whale presents them side by side. This was a brilliant decision because it shows that the walls are closing in on these people. All the characters are repressing their emotions but time is running out.
Ellie’s justified rage was heartbreaking but also so empowering to watch. Sometimes, she completely explodes, other times she’s just snappy and sometimes she’ll say the most shocking things in the most calming casual tones. Ellie aims to shock. She’s convinced herself she doesn’t need anyone and rage need to be nurtured and tended to just like every other emotion. The way to nurture it is to keep it away from people. Ellie is a loner and it’s breaking her but she’s surrendered to it. I understand her way of thinking. People disappoint you, hurt you, brutalize you, destroy you, leave you and take from you.
Other people love you, embrace you, take care of you, believe in you, empower you and lift you. Are most people like that? Probably not but those incredible people do exist but not for Ellie. She has no friends and prefers it that way. The loneliness is there though. Sink captures rage in ways I want to see explored more in other films. I find rage healthy, fascinating, empowering, loving, and beautiful but also dangerous, heartbreaking, and destructive. The brilliance of Sink’s performance is that she understands there’s a duality to rage and most performances, let alone most films, don't go that far. They portray rage as either completely out of control or completely repressed but there’s very rarely any in between. Sink’s performance is just as physical as it is emotional. In many shots, her body is spread out, twisted, and wrapped up in itself as she holds her phone.
She drugs Charlie so she can smoke pot and I swear to god, when she opens her eyes as she lets the air leave her mouth and she’s sitting cross-legged, she embodies the smoking caterpillar from Alice In Wonderland: Completely bonkers. Off her head……………but all the best people are. She has no idea how amazing a person she is. Charlie expresses that fear in many ways. His life is ending and hers is just beginning.
Mortality is a vital theme for The Whale. There are different kinds of deaths. Defeat for example. Defeat is a major character development with Liz. She never gives up ON Charlie, she gives up on him. It’s just too late to save him but she keeps trying because she doesn’t know how to do anything else. Even as a nurse, she realizes that to save him is just to take care of him until he dies. She loves Charlie just as she loved her brother. In taking care of Charlie, she feels important and appreciated but also unconditionally loved in return. Every time she hands him a meatball sub or a box of fried chicken, it’s in complete resignation to the situation at hand. Defeat at its most powerful. It’s too late to make him healthy and the look in her eyes as she hands him his food says it all.
Ty Simpkins and Samantha Morton both give sensational performances. Their characters are just as complex and well-written. Morton in particular shined. You can’t take your eyes off of her because you fear if you look away, she’ll come out of the screen and attack you. Mary and Charlie have some of the most complex scenes I’ve seen in a film all year. Of course, all five actors work so well together as a cast and not just individually. It’s not just about one line or one scene, it’s about committing to the entire story. I love when casts in films work like casts on stage. There’s such a positive example of loyalty and a sense of family that’s true beauty to behold. I always say and know to be true that when a cast and crew truly believe in the story they are telling and treat it with such passion that it’s life or death, it shows. Stories save us. Sometimes, they traumatize us but there’s so much good you can use from obtaining that.
I thought going into writing this piece on The Whale that I was going to address the ridiculous controversies the film has gotten because I do have a lot to say about that but I don’t think I’m going to. It’s not worth the aggravation, it’s not worth the energy. The Whale is one of the most beautiful, sensational, perfect-quality films I’ve ever seen. Anyone who disagrees or can’t understand why can’t be reasoned with and it’s not my job to reason with them anyway. If there’s even the slightest chance you think The Whale is not for you, don’t even bother trying to see it because, with all due respect, you don’t deserve the screening. The Whale is a film I intend to watch multiple times for the rest of my life. It’s a film made by multiple angels, about angels, and for angels. Angels weep and now that The Whale is out in the world, let’s just see who and who doesn’t get their wings.
Mikel625. “The Whale (2022).” Themoviedb.org, https://image.tmdb.org/t/p/original/bGlTTHAhLJXIXb1a0zyBEPqtxV9.jpg.